Once there were 68 teams vying for a championship, then 16 after the first weekend. Just one weekend later, only four stood tall: Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State. And speaking of tall, this year's Final Four features some of the nation's best frontcourt prospects: Jared Sullinger from the Ohio State Buckeyes, Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Anthony Davis of Kentucky, with the later two going head-to-head in what is likely to be one of the closest Player of the Year races in recent memory.
Kentucky features incredible talent and depth at the forward position with two future lottery picks with freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and sophomore Terrence Jones. Ohio State has Deshaun Thomas playing both the 3 and the 4 and leading this Buckeyes team so far. But that's not all. Louisville features Gorgui Dieng, while Kansas utilizes Jeff Withey on the inside, two of the premier centers in the game despite not yet (or ever) being household names.
Not to be outdone, each team also stars a point guard that has been crucial to Tournament success in the past. Think Kemba Walker last season, Shelvin Mack leading his Butler team to the Finals two straight years, Nolan Smith of Duke two years prior and Kalin Lucas the year before that falling just shy of a title. Aaron Craft is the hard-nosed defender, perhaps the best perimeter defender in the country, but he will have his hands full with the electrifying senior Tyshawn Taylor in the open floor when Ohio State takes on Kansas. Louisville has a one-man fast break in junior Peyton Siva, but Kentucky has a variety of guards to throw at him- starting with freshman Marquis Teague to sophomore Doron Lamb to the versatile upperclassman Darius Miller.
Louisville vs. Kentucky
Original matchup: December 31, 2011 at Kentucky: Kentucky 69, Louisville 62
Simply put, Louisville did not shoot the ball well, collecting 20 field-goals on 62 attempts (32.3 percent), including 4-of-18 (22.2 percent) from 3-point range and 18-of-27 (66.7 percent) from the foul line. However, their defense absolutely stellar, holding the offensively potent Wildcats to under-30 percent shooting from the floor. But where Kentucky dominated was inside, getting Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan in early foul trouble; Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist combined for 26 of Kentucky's 43 free-throw attempts, as they were relentless attacking the rim. The interior defense must be stronger this time around. The brightside is that the game was on the home court of the Wildcats in Lexington and this time, the rematch will be in New Orleans.
Record: 30-9 overall, 10-8 Big East
How They Got Here: Defeated Davidson (69-62), New Mexico (59-56), Michigan State (57-44), Florida (72-68)
After losing four of six to end the regular-season, Rick Pitino's team turned it on in the postseason a la the 2010-11 UConn Huskies, winning the Big East Tournament and all four NCAA Tournament games to extend their winning streak to eight.
During the stretch, Louisville has had many different players turn it on, which makes this team particularly dangerous. point guard Peyton Siva was hotter than hot in the conference tournament, but his shot has been off moreso than normal in the NCAAs. Chris Smith is just starting to find his perimeter stroke now, but is becoming dangerously reliable on the 3-ball instead of getting to the foul line. Center Gorgui Dieng is staying out of foul trouble and as a result, Louisville's interior defense has never looked better. Freshman power forward Chane Behanan is utilizing his strength and athleticsm to score in a variety of ways and is the team's leading scorer in the Tournament at 14 points per game. Russ Smith just keeps firing despite shooting under 36 percent from the floor. And last but not least, Kyle Kuric is just 5-of-21 from 3-point range, but is always capable of putting points up in a hurry from the outside.
While the offense has been up-and-down, the defense has been stellar. Dieng's inside presence has been a big part of that- locking down the interior ranking fourth in the country in total blocks this season. His ability to stay out of floor trouble and on the floor is crucial as he not only is an intimidator in the lane, but allows for guards Siva, Russ Smith and Kyle Kuric to jump out in the passing lanes and take risks.
The Cardinals rank sixth in overall defensive efficiency, third in defensive field-goal percentage, second in total steals and 11th in total blocks.
Record: 36-2 overall, 16-0 SEC
How They Got Here: Defeated Western Kentucky (81-66), Iowa State (87-71), Indiana (102-90), Baylor (82-70)
It's not wonder why Kentucky is the Tournament's top overall seed- with potential first-round picks are every position and a fiery coach at the helm, the Wildcats rank second in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Obviously having the SEC Player and Defensive Player of the Year in Anthony Davis is key as his development throughout the season on both ends of the floor has sparked UK; he creates mismatches on offense with his length, tremendous athleticism, and newly-found perimeter game, while on defense, his explosiveness and wingspan allow him to block and alter shots nearly everytime down the floor without creating contact for a foul.
The feature of the game that was crucial in Kentucky's win the first-time around and something Kentucky has improved on since then is their ability to get to and finish at the foul line. On the year, the Wildcats have made 411 more free-throws than their opponents and attempted another 571. In their New Year's Eve contest, Kentucky made five more foul shots than Louisville even attempted. Through the first four Tournament games, the Wildcats have gotten to the charity stripe +51 times over their opponents.
Kansas vs. Ohio State
Original matchup: December 10, 2011 at Kansas: Kansas 78, Ohio 67
It's unbelievable to see how both teams have improved since this early-season non-conference matchup: Ohio State has a healthy Jared Sullinger back in the lineup, not requiring Thad Matta to dig deep into his otherwise shallow bench. Lenzelle Smith Jr. has emerged as one of the best fifth options- having hit double-figure scoring eight times since this game, including 28 points against Indiana and 16 and 18 in back-to-back Tournament games most recently. The lefty forward Deshaun Thomas has upped his offensive game to a different level in terms of scoring and efficiency- averaging 13.6 through the Kansas game and 16.9 since, including a career-high 31 in the opening NCAA Tournament game for the Buckeyes.
Kansas' turnaround may be even more impressive- senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor had a bum knee, but still managed a career-high 13 assists in the victory over the Buckeyes, but did so with 7 turnovers; in the four games leading up to the OSU game, Taylor had managed to turn the ball over an astounding 25 times! His scoring and efficiencies are up, turnovers are down and Kansas is rolling. Center Jeff Withey has emerged as a solid offensive option, but has tremendously impacted the team's defensive performance since mid-December.
Record: 31-6 overall, 16-2 Big 12
How They Got Here: Defeated Detroit (65-50), Purdue (63-60), NC State (60-57), North Carolina (80-67)
The Jayhawks run through Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson, but he isn't the only option anymore. Tyshawn Taylor scored 22 points against North Carolina Sunday and backcourt-mate Elijah Johnson has scored in all four Tournament games thus far. Center Jeff Withey was a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor against the Tar Heels, but his biggest impact is on the defensive end where he was second in the nation in total blocks and topped the competition in block percentage this past year. Matching up with the small Ohio State Buckeyes and potentially the frontcourt-loaded Kentucky Wildcats in the championship, his presence will be huge.
But like we mentioned, the Kansas offense runs through Robinson. He led the Big 12 conference in percentage of possessions used, making the seventh most field-goals in Division I basketball at a 51.2 percent rate. While this accuracy mark is down from last year, Robinson has diversified his offensive game so his points don't just come in the paint anymore- he hit a 3 against UNC and several mid-range jumpers throughout the season to pull his man away from the rim and open up the driving lanes for himself and his guards, but also offensive rebounding opportunities.
With Withey in the middle on defense, the Jayhawks are the ninth most efficient defense, holding opponents to 0.91 points per possession and as a team, recorded 209 blocks this season, 7th in the country. Robinson is able to clean up the miss a majority of the time as his 9 defensive rebounds per game and 30.9 percent of defensive rebounds grabbed, helped Kansas end their opponents' possessions after just one shot.
One statistic to note is that senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor is 0-for-17 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament and is 0-for-his -last-20 dating back to the Baylor game on March 9th.
Record: 31-7 overall, 13-5 Big Ten
How They Got Here: Defeated Loyola-Maryland (78-59), Gonzaga (73-66), Cincinnati (81-66), Syracuse (77-70)
Most fans think Jared Sullinger when they think about Buckeyes basketball, and while that is true as the sophomore led the team in scoring and rebounding this past season, Deshaun Thomas leads the team in scoring this postseason and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the team's fifth option, has had the hot-hand the past two games.
Sullinger has not been as dominant this postseason as he has in the past, mostly due to foul problems and a propensity to step away from the basket and face-up instead of using his massive size and strength to bury his man in the post. Yet, there is no doubt still that Sullinger is the key to the Buckeyes moving on. He has gotten to the foul line 22 times in the past two games, getting Syracuse's and Cincinnati's big men in foul trouble early. Matching up against Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, it would do wonders for Thad Matta's gameplan if Sullinger could get one of them to the bench.
Deshaun Thomas, the lefty who plays both forward spots, has been playing at a consistently high level, using his size to post up small defenders and taking the bigger ones off the dribble. The fiery point guard Aaron Craft has 13 steals and forced countless more turnovers in four tournament games. And Lenzelle Smith has taken advantage of team's losing focus on him. The one player yet to step up is combo-guard William Buford; playing in his last NCAA Tournament as a Buckeye, this could be his time to elevate his game and shine- he is shooting just 29.5 percent from the floor in the Tournament.